It Follows – from writer/director David Robert Mitchell (The Myth of the American Sleepover) – arrives riding a wave of buzz from various festival showings and a strong box office turnout during its limited release. It will almost certainly go down as one of the creepier, stylish, and overall better offerings from the horror genre realized in 2015 (despite some faults) – and it shows that Mitchell belongs next to Adam Wingard (You’re Next), on the list of talented indie film storytellers lending their skills to the genre today.
Mitchell’s film has a fair amount in common with Wingard’s work – and not just in the sense that both filmmakers have worked with Monroe. It Follows is very much an exercise in retro-horror, calling back to the stylistic choices that were popular during the 1970s and ’80s in particular (like Wingard’s movies). Old-school horror film elements such as the synth-heavy score and frequent use of slow-zooms are utilized to strong effect here (without feeling kitschy), as is the often-voyeuristic camera perspective and The Shining-inspired use of tracking shots and visual/audio flourishes (slo-mo, very precise sound editing, etc.).
It Follows, also like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, succeeds by creating an unnerving atmosphere to leave the audience feeling constantly ill at ease. However, that means Mitchell’s film won’t appeal so much (re: it will be less scary) to those who aren’t fans of that gradualist approach to inspiring terror. Similarly, whereas some horror films (like The Babadook or James Wan’s recent horror work) provide moving character drama to go with the scares, the human story in It Follows is undercooked – and it’s certainly a secondary concern, after the style and metaphors that Mitchell relies on.
Speaking of subtext: while it’s nice that Mitchell’s script allows a fair amount of room for interpretation of what “It” symbolizes (and, in turn, what this story is about), It Follows might be a little too vague in that respect. The movie is clearly seeking to not just re-examine the tropes of the teen slasher horror sub-genre, but also to modernize those elements and gives them greater depth/newfound meaning. Unfortunately, It Follows feels more like a collection of big ideas that never really comes together – and, arguably, the ultimate thematic conclusion is anything but subversive.
It Follows also very much has an indie horror film flavor to it – in ways both good and bad, that is. Mitchell and his crew are by and large successful at creating a world that feels almost timeless (save for the occasional glimpses of modern technology); the sense of isolation felt by the teenaged characters comes across stronger, because the film was shot largely in abandoned and/or uninhabited regions around Detroit. At the same time, the internal logic of the film’s world isn’t always consistent (nor are the rules by which “It” operates) – resulting in scenes and developments that may make it hard for some moviegoers to suspend disbelief properly.
Mitchell’s script is fairly minimalistic when it comes to dialogue – which is good, since (sorry to say) the acting for It Follows tends to fall on the weak side. The exception to that rule is Maika Monroe, who delivers a compelling and vulnerable performance (both emotionally and physically) – allowing Jay to come across as a real person, rather than the two-dimensional “blonde teen girl in distress” featured in so many a previous horror film. Again, Monroe’s work here makes it clear why promising filmmakers keep lining up to work alongside her.
The other characters in the film – including Jay’s friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi), Kelly (Lili Sepe), and Paul (Keir Gilchrist) – tend to be flat, with Gilchrist as Paul getting the most development (as a result of his feelings for Jay). To be fair, the supporting cast does fine at their main job – acting terrified and/or confused – but when it comes to delivering the monologues and/or handling the emotional beats from Mitchell’s screenplay, their performances tend to come across as… well let's just say stilted – and with that the movie starts to feel more low-budget, in a bad way.
All shortcomings aside, though, Mitchell’s film is something that most horror movie buffs will want to give a look. The film might not be as deep as it aspires to be, but It Follows is one retro horror movie that’s quite creepy and has style to spare. 7.5/10